Compulsive behavior is defined as performing an act persistently and repetitively without it leading to an actual reward or pleasure.[1] Compulsive behaviors could be an attempt to make obsessions go away.[2] The act is usually a small, restricted and repetitive behavior, yet not disturbing in a pathological way.[1] Compulsive behaviors are a need to reduce apprehension caused by internal feelings a person wants to abstain or control.[3] A major cause of the compulsive behaviors is said to be obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD).[2] The main idea of compulsive behavior is that the likely excessive activity is not connected to the purpose it appears to be directed to.[1] Also, as well as being associated with obsessive–compulsive disorder,[4] compulsive behavior is associated with Compulsive Sexual Behavior or a lack of control over one’s sexual behavior.[5] Furthermore, there are many different types of compulsive behaviors including, shopping, hoarding, eating, gambling, trichotillomania and picking skin, checking, counting, washing, sex, and more. Also, there are cultural examples of compulsive behavior.

Disorders it is seen in

The most well-known disorder that is associated with compulsive behavior is obsessive–compulsive disorder. It is defined as both a brain and behavior disorder, characterized by having obsessions and compulsions. These cause extreme anxiety in most cases.[6] The most common compulsions for people suffering from OCD are washing, and checking.[4]

Another type of compulsive behavior disorder is Compulsive Sexual Behavior; also known as hypersexuality or nymphomania in females, and satyriasis in males.[7] For people with this, sex becomes an obsession, and sometimes involves fantasies or different sexual experiences that are outside accepted norms.[5] These sexual behaviors are known as paraphilias.[8]



Compulsive shopping is characterized by excessive shopping that causes impairment in a person’s life such as financial issues or not being able to commit to a family. The prevalence rate for this compulsive behavior is 5.8% worldwide. Majority of the people that suffer from this type of behavior are women (approximately 80%). There is no proven treatment for this type of compulsive behavior.[9]


Main article: Compulsive hoarding

Hoarding is characterized by excessive saving of possessions and having problems when throwing these belongings away. Major features of hoarding include not being able to use living quarters in the capacity of which it is meant, having difficulty moving throughout the home due to the massive amount of possessions, as well as having blocked exits that can pose a danger to the hoarder and their family and guests. Items that are typically saved by hoarders include clothes, newspapers, containers, junk mail, books, and craft items. Hoarders believe these items will be useful in the future or they are too sentimental to throw away. Others reasons include fear of losing important documents and information and object characteristics.[10]


Compulsive overeating has the characteristics of eating without being able to control intake and due to this gaining weight becomes problematic. This overeating is usually a coping mechanism to deal with issues in the individual’s life such as stress. Most compulsive over-eaters know that what they are doing is an issue. This compulsive behavior usually develops in early childhood. People that struggle with compulsive eating usually do not have proper coping skills to deal with the issues that are causing them to indulge in food to this extent. These binges usually are accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame of handling the situation by overindulgence in food. This is a compulsive behavior that can have deadly side effects. Side effects include, but are not limited to, binge eating; depression; withdrawal from activities due to weight; and spontaneous dieting. Though this is a very serious compulsive behavior, getting treatment and a proper diet plan can help individuals overcome these behaviors.[11]


Main article: Problem gambling

Compulsive gambling is characterized by having the desire to gamble and not being able to resist said desires. The gambling leads to serious personal and social issues in the individual’s life. This compulsive behavior usually begins in early adolescence for men and between the ages of 20-40 for women. People that have issues controlling compulsions to gamble usually have an even harder time resisting when they are having a stressful time in life. People that gamble compulsively tend to run into issues with family members, the law, and the places and people they gamble with. The majority of the issues with this compulsive behavior are due to lack of money to continue gambling or pay off debt from previous gambling. Compulsive gambling can be helped with various forms of treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Self-help or Twelve-step programs, and potentially medication.[12]

Trichotillomania and skin picking

Main article: Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania is classified as compulsive picking of hair of the body. It can be from any place on the body that has hair. This picking results in bald spots. Most people that have mild Trichotillomania can overcome it via concentration and more self-awareness.[13]

Those that suffer from compulsive skin picking have issues with picking, rubbing, digging, or scratching the skin. These activities are usually to get rid of unwanted blemishes or marks on the skin. These compulsions also tend to leave abrasions and irritation on the skin. This can lead to infection or other issues in healing. These acts tend to be prevalent in times of anxiety, boredom, or stress.[14]

Checking, counting, repeating, and washing

Compulsive checking can include compulsively checking items such as locks, switches, and appliances. This type of compulsion usually deals with checking whether harm to oneself or others is possible. Usually, most checking behaviors occur due to wanting to keep others and the individual safe.[15]

People that suffer from compulsive counting tend to have a specific number that is of importance in the situation they are in. When a number is considered significant, the individual has a desire to do the behavior such as wiping ones face off the number of times that is significant. Compulsive counting can include instances of counting things such as steps, items, behaviors, and mental counting.[16]

Compulsive repeating is characterized by doing the same activity multiple times over. These activities can include re-reading a part of a book multiple times, re-writing something multiple times, repeating routine activities, or saying the same phrase over and over.[17]

Compulsive washing is usually found in individuals that have a fear of contamination. People that have compulsive hand washing behaviors wash their hands repeatedly throughout the day. These hand washings can be ritualized and follow a pattern. People that have problems with compulsive hand washing tend to have problems with chapped or red hands due to the excessive amount of washing done each day.[18]

Sexual behavior

Main article: Sexual addiction

This type of compulsive behavior is characterized by feelings, thoughts, and behaviors about anything related to sex. These thoughts have to be pervasive and cause problems in health, occupation, socialization, or other parts of life. These feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can include normal sexual behaviors or behaviors that are considered illegal and/or morally and culturally unacceptable. This disorder is also known as hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, nymphomania or sexual addiction.[5]


Main article: Compulsive talking

Compulsive talking goes beyond the bounds of what is considered to be a socially acceptable amount of talking.[19] The two main factors in determining if someone is a compulsive talker are talking in a continuous manner, only stopping when the other person starts talking, and others perceiving their talking as a problem. Personality traits that have been positively linked to this compulsion include assertiveness, willingness to communicate, self-perceived communication competence, and neuroticism.[20] Studies have shown that most people who are talkaholics are aware of the amount of talking they do, are unable to stop, and do not see it as a problem.[21]

Cultural examples

  • Lady Macbeth was obliged by her guilt feelings to repetitively wash her hands.[22]
  • Samuel Johnson was compelled to obsessively count steps and stairs.[23]
  • Len Deighton in his brainwashing thriller The IPCRESS File noted the relative immunity to it of compulsive checkers: "people who go back twice to make sure the door is locked, who walk down the street avoiding the joins in the paving, then become sure they've left the kettle on. They are difficult to hypnotize and difficult to brain-wash".[24]

See also


Further reading

  • Sandor Ferenczi, 'The Compulsion to Symmetrical Touching', Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis (1926)
  • A. J. Lewis, 'Obsessional Illnes', in Inquiries in Psychiatry (1967)
  • Rob Long, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (2005)
  • Lennard J. Davis, Obsession; A History (2008)

External links

  • Compulsions
  • Compulsive behaviors
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